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VOICES OF SCOTLAND Economic recovery cannot just mean ‘getting back to where we were’

The coronavirus crisis has laid bare fundamental issues at the heart of our economy and democracy, writes DAVE MOXHAM of the STUC

THIS Sunday saw the deadline for submitting evidence to the Scottish government’s Advisory Group on Economic Recovery.  

The group was created in April and includes among its members the STUC’s outgoing general secretary Grahame Smith.  

The group is expected to provide initial proposals by the end of June 2020.

The Scottish government has also tasked the Just Transition Commission, on which I sit, to consider the green recovery as part of its remit and remaining work programme and provide written advice on this by the end of July.

Sitting as we are in the middle of an immediate crisis that seems a long way from easing and with the very real risk of a second spike in infections later this year, the recommendations of both bodies are likely, at best, to be preliminary.

We also saw, over the weekend, some 80 organisations, including anti-poverty charities, trade unions, environmental groups and campaign organisations, publish a letter to the First Minister calling for “a radical economic recovery programme that prioritises people and planet over profit.” That is a campaign which is likely to develop over coming days and weeks.  

Although not a formal signatory to the letter, the STUC will be unsurprisingly sympathetic to its central point.  

Economic recovery cannot be treated as a process of getting back to where we were.  

Rather, it is an opportunity, albeit a difficult and intensely painful one, to get to a place where we need to be.

The coronavirus crisis has laid bare fundamental issues at the heart of our economy and democracy. 

While the coronavirus may not discriminate on the grounds of class, its effects do. 

And our capacity to combat its spread and mitigate its social and economic impacts is directly linked to how our work, our services and our communities are organised.

The virus hit us at a time when historic inequalities of power, manifesting in poverty and inequality, had been further exacerbated by a decade of austerity. 

Mass privatisations, the dominance of multinationals and short-term investment, placed workers in a position of weakness exacerbated by attacks on trade union freedom. 

This has led to the growth of precarious work through bogus self-employment, zero-hours contracts and underemployment. 

Nearly 50 years after the Equal Pay Act, the injustice of the gender pay gap remains while inequality at work is a daily fact for BME and disabled workers.

Alongside this reduction in workers’ power, we have lost the power to guarantee basic rights such as good-quality affordable housing, a living income if sick or unemployed and a dignified care system for young and old alike.

Government policy has failed thus far to grasp the challenge of climate change — the imperative to achieve net zero while guaranteeing decent well-paid alternative jobs and community justice. 

There is currently no Just Transition. We have relied far too much on the role of the market, incentives and persuading individual behaviour change and far too little on regulation, state investment and the collective power of communities to imagine and effect a greener future.

We now require a fundamental rethink on the purposes of growth and the introduction of urgent measures to begin the creation of the wellbeing economy and fair work for all.

The current shutdown of the large parts of the economy and the essential government intervention to shore up the economy and protect jobs and living standards has proven that economic risk lies not with the corporations but with government and the people it represents. 

The current co-ordination and investment presented by government as a short-term economic necessity does in fact point to the potential to do things differently in the long term. 

In our submission to the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery, we call for a massive stimulus to drive a clean jobs recovery.  

Preliminary research we released over the weekend indicates the potential for the creation of 140,000 jobs in the coming two years in areas such as housebuilding, deep retrofit, transport, manufacturing and the renewables supply chain.  

Supporting this with an ambitious Future Jobs Programme, as advocated by the TUC, would provide a much-needed economic boost and save thousands of young workers from bad jobs, or no job at all.  

These investments should be driven by a nationally owned construction company, public ownership in energy, nationalisation of rail and municipally owned bus companies.

Government intervention and ownership is not an end in itself. Rather, it is a means by which workers and communities can truly and collectively exert power over their own lives. 

This means that unions can seek to capitalise on our increased agency, agitate for an end to anti-trade union laws and organise in sectors where our membership is low such as in the developing data economy.

Despite the depth of the current crisis, calls for the creation of a national care service  — taking of profit-making out of the picture — no longer seem impractical.  

And, while I am not personally convinced of the case for universal basic income, the case for scrapping universal credit, the creation of a proper system of social security, the four-day week and significant pay rises for key workers are all back on the agenda. 

I expect the trade union movement in Scotland to be right at the centre of developing these ideas and policies in the period ahead.

Dave Moxham is deputy general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress.

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